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THE BOY POET SULPICIUS— A TRAGEDY OF
ROMAN EDUCATION. 1
Early in the year 1871 excavations at the Porta Salaria in
Rome brought to light a monument of more than usual signifi-
cance to those interested in the educational problems of antiq-
uity. The commemorative inscription found near by declared
it the tomb of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, a lad of eleven years,
five months, and twelve days, who in 94 A. D. acquitted him-
self with credit in the third of the quinquennial contests insti-
tuted by Domitian in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus. This tomb,
facing originally on the Via Salaria not far from the Colline Gate
of Servius Tullius, had been built into the Aurelian Wall,
restored in the early part of the fifth century by Arcadius and
Honorius. The statue and the inscription from this tomb, which
form the subject of this paper, are to be found in an upper room
of the Capitoline Museum, where the boy prodigy holds out his
scroll appealingly to an unappreciative audience of odds and
ends that rarely attract the casual visitor.
The marble slab measures 45 inches in height, 34 inches in
width, and 27 inches in thickness. The figure of the young
poet, 28 inches in height, stands in a niche covered by a gable
with a laurel crown in the tympanum, and with acanthus and
other leaves in the antifixes. The entire front at the right and
left of this niche are closely inscribed with forty Greek hexam-
eters of the poem, the last three being with difficulty deci-
phered from the scroll in the hands of the boy. The space below
the niche contains first a dedication in Latin extending from
cornice to cornice, and under this, in two columns, two Greek
epigrams written probably by the father. The Latin inscription
is in the symmetrical, clear capitals of the early empire, the height
varying from three-quarters of an inch in the dedication formula,
D. M., to half an inch in the fourth and fifth lines. It reads: 2
1 Read at the Classical Conference at Ann Arbor, Mich., March 27; see p. 406.
' The text of the inscriptions is given by Henzen, Bull. deW Inst., 1871, pp. 08-
117; Kaibel, Inscriptiones Graecae Siciliae et Italiae, pp. 494-6; cf. also Kaibel,
THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 385
Sacred to the Deified Shades of the Dead.
In memory of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus, the son of Quintus, of the Claudian
tribe. His home was at Rome. He lived eleven years, five months, and
twelve days. In the third lustrum of the contest, entering the competition as
one among fifty-two Greek poets, he roused to admiration by his talent the
favor he had won by his tender years, and came off with distinction. That
his parents may not seem to have been unduly influenced by their affection
for him, his extemporaneous verses have been inscribed below. Quintus
Sulpicius Eugramus and Licinia Januaria, his unfortunate parents, erected
this tomb for their devoted son, for themselves, and for their descendants.
The Greek epigrams are in two columns, that on the left
being about 16 inches wide, that on the right less than 13 inches;
the average height of the letters is about half an inch. They are
closely connected in thought ; literally translated they read:
Though but a lad of twelve short years was I,
I left this contest for the land of shades.
Disease and weariness reft me away,
For of the Muses dreamed I, morning, noon, and night.
I pray you for the sake of this poor lad,
Pause here and see his off-hand verses' dainty grace.
And speak through falling tears, with gracious lips
This single prayer, " Fare thou to Elysian land."
For thou hast left here living nightingales,
Which greedy-handed Pluto ne'er shall seize.
How slight this token of our love ; and yet thy fame to heaven shall come.
Oh, Maximus, by thee the Pierian Muses have been far outdone.
Nor nameless didst thou bow to ruthless fate,
Which gave thy song no lethal lot.
No one with tearless eyes thy tomb shall pass,
Beholding here thy verses, row on row.
Thy glory is secure, for not unknown
Shalt thou repose, gazed on by humbler shades.
The title of the extempore verse of the young Sulpicius is in
letters about half an inch high ; the body of the poem is cut in
smaller letters which were much crowded in the right-hand col-
Epigrammata Graeca ex lapidibus conlecta, pp. 250-53. The monument of Sulpicius
is reproduced by Lanciani in Pagan and Christian Rome (full-page illustration,
facing p. 282).
386 THE SCHOOL REVIEW
una in order to get the whole poem into the available space. A
THE EXTEMPORANEOUS VERSES OF QUINTUS SULPICIUS MAXIMUS : THE
WORDS GREAT ZEUS MIGHT HAVE USED, UPBRAIDING HELIOS BECAUSE
HE GAVE HIS CAR TO PHAETHON.
The light-bearing charioteer of our well-ordered world,
Thee alone did the gods, lords of heaven, appoint.
Why then, pray, thy heedless son bring to the vault of Olympus,
And thy charger's ineffable swiftness surrender to him,
Not even in secret afraid of my power?
False to the gods this folly of thine. Now whither away
Fled young Phaethon's car? Thy torch's unquenchable fire,
Why up to my throne did it flare ? why through the wide world
And the circling stars swept thy stifling heat ?
Old Ocean raised his suppliant hands to heaven,
What stream lamented not its dwindling course ?
The harvests on the fruitful ground lay sear,
And every swain leaned on his scythe and mourned his parching sheaves,
In vain he sowed the ungracious soil ; in vain
He yoked his oxen to his crooked plow. Till evening star
Behind his weary oxen, bent his manly limbs.
All lands made moan for him, that heedless boy,
And I at last did quench his glowing flame.
Weep not the lad's dire fate, but for thy world take thought
Lest thou shouldst find the flaming weapon from my hand too fierce for thee.
Mark well the mind of heaven-dwelling Zeus.
By Rhea's self, Olympus never saw a madder prank ;
My world, thy trust, no schoolboy's task, to rule !
Let be the past ; the future guard with greater care.
Unworthy of his sire, thy son. He wot not of thy chargers' boundless strength,
Nor had he skill to guide the reins, thy task stupendous.
Come now, return to earth again, lest unto other hands be given
Thy vaunted task, the fleeting pleasures of thy toilsome round.
Thou only, hastening on with flaming wheels,
All that fair way from East to West didst pass.
To thee this trust I gave, thy ceaseless vaunt.
Take pity on the earth and all the star-bright world,
And through Olympus hold thy way again.
Such tasks are god-befitting, such our rightful sphere.
Thy gracious light again, oh, god, take up. — Thy son hath ravaged wide. —
And do thou then thyself the vault illimitable traverse,
THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 387
Half way 'twixt heaven above and earth beneath.
For thus thy fires will light the sons of Uranus,
And mortal prayers be ever free from plaint.
Thus shalt thou find the heart of Zeus o'ersoft to pardon thee.
But if some other purpose hold thee, reckless one,
The stars themselves be witness, that my flaming bolt
With swift-winged power shall utterly destroy alike the bodies of thy steeds
and of thy son.
It is quite outside the province of this paper to comment
upon the literary merit of these verses. They will, of course,
never be reckoned with as a part of the world's literature. But
as the swan song of this ambitious Roman boy, they have a
peculiar pathos that haunts the imagination. We are touched,
too, in the dedication, by the note of parental pride mingling
with the grief, which has outlived the centuries and makes real
to us the sorrow of Sulpicius Eugramus and Licinia Januaria.
But aside from the sentiment that clings to it, the entire inci-
dent has a distinct value for the student of ancient life. It is
possible to explain the effort of this talented boy upon reason-
able grounds. He was the logical product of a system of training,
reinforced probably by an unusual inheritance and environ-
ment which forced him to an untimely fruition. Although an
investigation of such limited sources as we have at hand will
clearly yield results less satisfactory and conclusive than we
might wish, the attempt to reconstruct the inheritance, environ-
ment, and training of young Sulpicius will illustrate the peda-
gogical ideals and educational methods of the Early Empire.
The father of the youthful poet was probably a freedman ;
for while the son bore a Roman cognomen, Maximus, and is fur-
ther distinguished by the designation of his tribe (the Claudian),
the mark of a freeborn Roman, Eugramus has neither. The
latter had apparently belonged to some Q. Sulpicius whose
praenomen and nomen, according to the Roman custom, he had
taken, after his manumission, in addition to his own slave name.
It might at first seem a hopeless task, considering the extent
of this gens, even to conjecture with which particular Q. Sulpi-
cius our Eugramus had been connected. In the Prosopographia
Imperii Romani (Vol. Ill, pp. 281-90) appear forty-one men of
3^8 THE SCHOOL REVIEW
this name. In the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions (Vol. VI, 4, 1,
26944-27018) are given seventy-four epitaphs from tombs of the
Sulpician gens and of its freedmen. The praenomen Quintus,
however, was unusual among the Sulpicii, Gaius and Servius being
more common. In the sixth volume of the Corpus it appears in
only three inscriptions, all apparently epitaphs of freedmen (C.
I. L. VI, 4, 26949, 26968, 26969). In the Prosopographia there
are also but three. This reduces the difficulty of identification
somewhat, for a study of our available sources indicates that the
name Quintus was common only in the Camerini family. It is
possible, therefore, that the former master of Q. Sulpicius
Eugramus was a Q. Sulpicius Camerinus.
Perhaps this identification is sufficient for our purpose, if it
connects Eugramus with a family mentioned by Juvenal, who
wrote about this same time (Sat. VII, 90; VIII, 38), as typical
of the nobility, having a record not only for distinguished service,
but for refined literary interests, counting among its members an
ambassador to Greece in the investigation of Greek codes prelimi-
nary to the decemvirate of 451 B. C, and an epic poet mentioned
by Ovid as a contemporary. The most distinguished of the
Sulpicii Camerini died only fifteen years before the birth of
the young poet. This was Sulpicius Camerinus, called either
Py thicus or, as Mommsen conjectures, Peticus, from a distinguished
ancestor, Gaius Sulpicius Peticus, dictator in 396 B. C, and five
times consul. He was the son of the epic poet already men-
tioned; consul in 46, proconsul in Africa in 56, a member of the
exclusively patrician society of the Arval Brothers, being in 60
president of the Board of Sacrifice. In 67 he and his son were
put to death on a charge of treason, because they had ventured
to use this hereditary cognomen Pythicus, which Nero claimed as
his sole right. Since evidence is not lacking that Eugramus had
in 94 been free for a considerable time, the interval of twenty-
seven years between the death of Peticus and that of young Max-
imus offers no serious objection to the supposition that Eugramus
was possibly the freedman of Q. Sulpicius Camerinus Peticus.
His nationality could hardly be proved conclusively by the
fact that as a slave he had borne a Greek name, for it is not impos-
THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 389
sible that such names were applied indiscriminately, according to
the master's fancy, to slaves of all races. But the direct statement
that his son was one among fifty-two Greek poets may indicate
that Eugramus was himself a Greek.
At the time of his son's death in 94, Eugramus was evidently
a man of considerable means; the fact is attested by the rather
elaborate character of the tomb and its location on the Via
Salaria, the burial place of well-to-do families. If his master
was indeed Sulpicius Camerinus Peticus, the wealth could not
have come to Eugramus from him, since his property was
undoubtedly divided between the state and the informer M.
Aquilius Regulus. We must suppose, therefore, that it was
obtained from some other source.
What his occupation was, it is impossible to determine. Since
we find no mention of him in any literary or epigraphical docu-
ment, we have no evidence connecting him. with any political
office or position of court favor. Could we but be sure that he
was the author of the epigrams, we should have a reasonable clue.
A comparison of these epigrams with the Latin inscription shows
striking points of similarity. There is in both the same mingling
of grief and pride, the same emphasis of the boy's youth, the same
reason given for displaying his verse as a vindication of parental
pride and as an appeal for universal sympathy — resemblances
that suggest a common author.
The epigrams show a finish and mastery of form that marks
them as the work of a Greek, and since Eugramus was quite
possibly a Greek and in all probability wrote the dedication, it
may well be that he also wrote the epigrams. If we can upon
such shadowy evidence admit at least the probability of this
supposition, we shall naturally suppose him to have belonged to
the large class of Greek grammarians and rhetoricians so common
in this period. His slave name, Eugramus, and his probable
connection with the Camerini, noted for their literary interests,
may imply that as a slave he had been employed as a tutor or as
a rhetorician in his master's family.
These hypotheses are significant only so far as they furnish a
possible explanation of the boy's precocity. If Eugramus was
39° THE SCHOOL REVIEW
a Greek freedman with years of experience as a grammarian or
a rhetorician, first as the slave of a cultured house and later per-
haps as an independent teacher of the art, the son's literary
taste, ambition, and in a degree his talent may have been part of
his inheritance. Moreover, his home language would in that case
have been Greek, and he would have heard the limited stock of
rhetorical commonplaces treated over and over by his father's
pupils, till the catch-phrases and hackneyed vocabulary would
become almost unconsciously his own.
But while these hypotheses might in a measure account for the
character of the boy's precocity, they do not explain the peculiar
way in which it was manifested. The mere fact that in this
competition, Sulpicius was but one among fifty-two contestants,
may serve to indicate how common this form of extemporizing
was in the classical period. It is evident, therefore, that the
system of training employed is an important element in the
problem, and our evidence is here fortunately sufficient to war-
rant somewhat more definite conclusions.
Aside from our literary evidence, even of a direct character,
like the Institutes of Quintilian, we have for consideration in this
poem a document which has the unimpeachable value of epi-
graphical testimony. These verses have been practically unaffected
in transmission. We look today upon the very letters which the
proud father had carved beside the figure of his son. We have
no haunting specter of textual criticism to lay, before we can
approximate the original.
Moreover, this poem is not an isolated phenomenon. Its
relations involve the whole complex system of ancient thought ;
its ramifications strike deep into the history of ancient literature,
art, and education. Like the "flower in the crannied wall," it
has little individual significance, but as the product of an organ-
ism, it bears marks of its origin. If we could but understand it
thoroughly in all its relations, we should better comprehend the
entire system of rhetorical training under the Roman empire.
Before examining the literary evidence, therefore, we may seek
at first hand in the poem itself for traces of the ideal and the more
obvious features of the system that produced it.
THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 39 1
The most superficial examination stamps the poem as abnor-
mal. Content and form have their normal relation neither to
each other nor to the personality of the poet. The legitimate
function of form is to give adequate expression to content. Any
attempt to give it artificial value, aside from the satisfactory per-
formance of this function, results in an effect of sham. In pro-
portion as this balance is destroyed, the work of art falls in the
scale of values. It is evident that in the poem under considera-
tion the content furnishes a mere excuse for displaying a
mastery of form, which has become practically the sole con-
sideration. We have here an example of the Alexandrine school
in its dotage — the fatal substitution of the mechanical for the
In the second place, the content of a work of art, if not
wholly the product of the creative imagination, is normally so
molded and affected by it as to bear unmistakable traces of the
artist's personality. The fact that Ovid, seventy-five years
before, and Lucian, seventy-five years after, treated the same
theme along practically the same lines, indicates clearly enough
that the young Sulpicius was presenting here a conventional
commonplace. The picture was given to him complete in all its
details, and he was not stimulated to develop it in any way by
the creative imagination.
Moreover, as we shall have occasion to note in another con-
nection, the form does not result from a spontaneous attempt to
express a conception in adequate terms, but in a conscious effort
to recall and fit together conventional rhetorical phrases, asso-
ciated more or less mechanically with the theme.
We are perhaps safe in summarizing as follows the general
aim of the rhetorical system in vogue at the end of the first
1. It exalted form to independent importance.
2. It aimed at a system of rhetorical mechanics.
3. It substituted memory, the most mechanical of the mental
processes, for the creative imagination.
4. Its ideal was conformity to tradition and convention rather
than stimulation to original effort.
392 THE SCHOOL REVIEW
These conditions are enforced by a more detailed examina-
tion of the poem of Sulpicius. We find the vocabulary remark-
ably varied and complete, two words, at least so far as extant
Greek goes, being apparently found only here. In the case of
a boy of twelve years, it is clear that so great a command of
literary words and striking epithets must have been the result of
his training. A study of his sources in this particular will,
therefore, suggest the authors upon which this training was
based ; the limits of this paper preclude more than the briefest
1. Of the 28 epithets in the poem, 15 are distinctly Homeric,
4 are found in Homer but also in other authors, 4 remain unclas-
sified, and only 7 are not Homeric, traceable to other sources.
2. Of the 55 substantives, 25 are distinctly Homeric, 14 are
found in Homer and also in other authors, 4 remain unclassified,
and only 12 are not Homeric.
3. The colorless character of the verbs, in contrast to the
striking epithets and substantives, is significant of the florid
style. Only 10 of the 45 verbs deserve any special notice. Of
these 4 are Homeric, 2 are found in Homer and elsewhere, 2 are
unclassified, and 2 are not Homeric.
4. Of the 3 words not included in the classes mentioned, 2
are not Homeric.
Thus we see that of the 96 words studied 68, or two-thirds of
the entire number, are Homeric. Of the non-Homeric words,
11 are common in Herodotus, 9 in Hesiod, 7 in Pindar, 7 in
Euripides, 5 in Xenophon, 5 in Apollonius Rhodius, 3 in Soph-
ocles, 2 in iEschylus.
The natural conclusions from these data would be, first, that
the boy's training had included an intensive drill in Homer.
This conclusion is further supported by the fact that the forms
are regularly Homeric, no matter what the source from which
the word was derived. Moreover, Homeric words are employed
with an intimate knowledge of this usage. To illustrate with a
single example, the form fioeaai appears in Homer with one
exception at the end of the line, as it does in the sixteenth line
of our poem. In the second place, we see that the drill in
THE BOY POET SULPICIUS 393
Homer was apparently supplemented by the study of Hesiod,
Pindar, Euripides, Apollonius Rhodius, and perhaps also of
Herodotus and Xenophon. Now, while it is conceivable that a
twelve-year-old boy may have read his Homer repeatedly, it
seems evident that he could not also have read Herodotus,
Hesiod, Pindar, Euripides, Xenophon, Apollonius Rhodius
Sophocles, and ^Eschylus with enough intensity to have had an
appreciable effect upon his memory. They must have been pre-
sented to him either in judicious selections by his teacher, or
striking phrases, possibly whole lines, were given him as supple-
mental to his Homer. That this was actually the kind of train-
ing that the boy received is made probable by the statement
of Quintilian (I, viii), which is worth quoting:
It is extremely proper that they begin with reading Homer and Virgil.
Tragedies are useful, and lyric poets, too ; provided you not only select your
authors, but the passages in the several authors.
This kind of training was entirely consistent with the ideals
and methods of the period. In support of our contention it is
only necessary to refer to other passages of Quintilian, who,
though he intended his work primarily for aspiring orators, has
outlined in a very definite fashion a system of elementary train-
ing of far wider application. Thus, in his view, the ideals in the
primary education, as in the boy's later study, were memory and
imitation He says (I, iii, i) : "The most important indication
of natural ability in children is memory The next impor-
tant is imitation ; " and farther on (I, i, 36) :
For memory, as I shall show in the proper place, is especially important
for the orator ; and it is especially strengthened and nourished by exercise ;
in the age of which we are now speaking, which can create nothing of itself,
it is almost the only faculty which can be improved by the care of a teacher.
The system embodying this ideal was in brief as follows :
Primary education began with a tutor from the child's third to
his seventh year, and consisted largely in reading and writing
(Quint., I, i, 15). Secondary education under a grammaticus ,
or instructor in the elementary classics, followed as soon as
the boy could read and write. The two main branches of this
training consisted in a study of the Greek and Latin poets, and
394 THE SCHOOL REVIEW
in elementary composition, both oral and written, based on this
study (Quint., I, ix). Homer and Virgil are recommended
as the proper authors with which the boy's serious reading
should begin, and as a basis for all subsequent study. These are
supplemented by judicious selections from the tragedies and
lyrics. The Latin authors specially mentioned are Ennius,
Accius, Pacuvius, Lucilius, Terence and Caecilius.
The method of study applied to these poets consisted
(Quint., I, iv, v), in parsing and construing the words; in a
study of versification ; in a study of style with particular refer-
ence to poetic license ; in a study of synonyms, archaisms, and
in the acquisition of a choice vocabulary of such words ; in a
practical mastery of figures of speech and all rhetorical orna-
ment ; in a study of structure and disposition ; in a mastery of
historical detail ; and, finally, in the memorizing of choice pas-
The oral and written composition, based upon this intensive
reading and carried along at the same time with it, consisted of
exercises in both prose and verse. The prose exercises were at
first the simple narration of familiar tales, jEsop being especially
recommended, followed by an elaboration of these simple nar-
ratives by various rhetorical devices (Quint. I, ix, i). In
poetry the verses were analyzed and explained in the pupils'
own words, and were then paraphrased (I, ix). A single quota-
tion will show how implicitly Quintilian believed in the efficacy
of this system, and will at the same time throw light on the
study of our poem (Quint., II, vii, 2, 3) :
If boys are early accustomed to compose after the best models, they will
always have in their memories something which they may imitate and, with-
out even realizing it, will reproduce that sort of style which has made the
deepest impression upon them. They will never be at a loss for plenty of
the best words, phrases, and figures, which they need not hunt for, since these
will offer themselves spontaneously as from a magazine treasured up in their
The subject of extemporaneous poetical composition in antiq-
uity is too extensive to be discussed here. In the case of our
poem, the process of composition seems to have consisted in a
more or less mechanical fitting together, to meet the require-
THE BO Y POE T SULPICIUS 395
ments of the hexameter verse, of words and phrases recalled
from an intensive drill in Homer and other Greek poets.
The character of the evidence does not permit us to draw
from our study a fuller knowledge of the lad Sulpicius. After
all, the real value of his poem for us lies not in the interesting
half glimpse it gives into the heart of ancient education, but in
the pathos that humanizes it and lifts it above all accidental
associations of time or place. The ambitious parents, proud
even in their grief, the brilliant child, poring over his Homer
night and day that he might win in the imperial contest, and
dying at last from the unnatural strain, in the disappointment of
defeat, give us for the moment a sense of intimate kinship with
Roman life, of sympathy for those living eighteen centuries ago
like that which we feel for those about us.
J. Raleigh Nelson.